SEATTLE, Washington — The global spread of COVID-19 has negatively impacted refugees worldwide. Many living in overcrowded refugee centers are already suffering from centers’ unsanitary conditions, low food supplies and a lack of access to health care. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, many host countries are restricting asylum seekers’ access to contain the virus. While these preventative infection measures prevent populations from contracting COVID-19, it comes at the expense of asylum seekers who fled their home countries in search of safety. Despite these uncertain times, Uganda is aiding refugees through a newly established refugee program.
According to a July report by the U.N. Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been the center of war crimes and human rights violations. As a result, many Congolese are fleeing the country to escape violence and conflict. The armed group, Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), has destroyed villages, health centers and schools in DRC. In the past 18 months, these actions have killed more than 800 civilians. Moreover, the group has abducted many women and children.
Since May, the U.N. Refugee Agency has reported more than 45,000 asylum seekers in the Ugandan borders, primarily women, children and families whose homes have been destroyed.
How Uganda Responded
On July 2, President of Uganda Yoweri Museveni temporarily lifted the border travel restrictions that were implemented in March due to COVID-19 lockdowns for the Congolese refugees. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Ugandan Ministry of Health and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) partnered to facilitate a program that provides life-saving aid to Congolese refugees entering Uganda. The new arrivals will undergo security and health screenings at the border and will be quarantined for 14 days at the Zewdu Farm Institute in the Zombo district.
Around 3,000 Congolese refugees have arrived at the Ugandan border between July 1 and 3. Additionally, the Zewdu Farm Institute has approximately 318 family tents set up and UNHCR and the Ministry of Health are providing water tanks, health screening services and handwashing facilities.
Refugees and the COVID-19 Pandemic
As of July 20, there are more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 in Uganda, with 52 being refugees. According to UNHCR, Uganda’s refugee program is severely underfunded and faces many challenges in getting access to sufficient food supply and sanitation. However, the Ugandan government is persevering with the program despite the obstacles and amid the pandemic. Transportation centers and reception offices are being transformed into quarantine and sanitation facilities to make room for more arrivals.
The Ugandan Health Ministry is providing sample testing to refugees and the first 570 tests have come back negative. They are also providing vaccinations against polio, cholera, rubella and measles.
The Future of Uganda’s Refugee Program
However, for Uganda to maintain its progressive refugee policy, the UNHCR will require $357 million in aid from its allied countries. UNHCR has so far received 18% of this funding and, to continue the program, will need an additional $27 million in foreign aid.
According to studies by the University of California, Davis, and the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) helping refugees resettle and find employment opportunities is hugely beneficial to local markets and helps spur economic growth. The study concluded that monetary assistance to refugees in Uganda helped boost its spending power and economic development, which disputes the claim that refugees burden economies. Amid this time of crisis, it is essential to provide aid and safety to those in need, such as how Uganda is aiding refugees through its new refugee program. United together, people from across countries and cultures can overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-economic consequences.